New York Police Department’s Street Crime Unit

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Beginning in 1994, the New York Police Department (NYPD) maintained

a special Street Crime Unit that targeted firearm-related violence hot

spots and aggressively sought out sources of illegal firearms (Office of

Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). Between 1994 and

1997, the NYPD made 46,198 gun arrests and confiscated 56,081 firearms.

Nonfatal shootings declined by 62 percent between 1993 and 1997 and, in

1998, New York had only 633 homicides, its lowest since 1964 (Office of

Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1999). At the same time, the

aggressive policing tactics of the NYPD have been criticized as resulting in

increased citizen complaints about police misconduct and abuse of force

(Greene, 1999).5 The aggressive gun-oriented policing strategies of the

NYPD have not been formally evaluated.6

What Has Been Learned?

The evidence from the three targeted place-based firearm and crime

suppression patrols is compelling. All three evaluations are well designed

and all reveal the same qualitative conclusion, namely, increased firearms

seizures, reductions in crime, and little if any displacement. Moreover, these

findings are supported by the larger literature on actual randomized policing

experiments, which show place-based policing interventions as having

substantial crime control effects (see the National Research Council, 2004).

Despite these encouraging findings, there are several shortcomings in

the research information that create uncertainty about the potential efficacy

of place-based targeted firearms patrols. At the most basic level, the credibility

of the quasi-experimental statistical model rests with whether the

underlying comparison group is in fact comparable (Meyer, 1995). In particular,

the methodology rests on an assumption that the only important

difference between the targeted and control patrol areas is in the intervention.

In fact, however, the targeted areas were not chosen at random and

were not identical to the comparison patrols. Even if the groups are comparable,

these evaluations cannot reveal whether the findings reflect a change

from general to targeted policing or a change in resource allocation. In all

three evaluations, additional resources were explicitly devoted to the targeted

areas. The Kansas City program, for example, included both targeted

interventions and additional nighttime patrols. Finally, the interventions

were of limited duration and scope, focusing on particular areas at particular

points in time. As such, the evaluations may not provide insight into the

long-term, large-scale potential of these targeted interventions.

Will hot-spot policing have long-term deterrent effects on gun violence?

To what extent will there be geographic substitution of violence? How long

will it take criminals to adapt to the new system? Will other forms of crime

and violence emerge as police change the focus of their efforts? These are

important questions for policy officials who must make decisions about

whether and how widely to implement such programs.

5Others suggest that the increase in the number of citizen complaints is unremarkable; the

NYPD’s broader “broken windows” policing strategy significantly increased the number of

police-resident contacts, resulting in an overall decrease in the rate of citizen complaints per

police-resident contact.

6Other aspects of the New York City policing practices in the 1990s have been evaluated.

For a review of this literature, see National Research Council (2004).

Given the early success of these three modest interventions and given

the consistency of the basic finding, it would seem worthwhile to learn

more about the longer term impacts. Thus, the committee recommends that

a sustained and systemic research program be devoted to studying the

impact of different place-based gun suppression patrol and targeted policing

approaches in general. These evaluations should focus on replicating

the existing evidence in different settings, running experimental evaluations,

and formalizing and estimating behavioral models of policing and

crime. Additional evaluations should assess the longer term impacts, paying

particular attention to issues of substitution, adaptation, and deterrence.

Policing Violent Gun Offenders

A small number of chronic offenders generate a disproportionate share

of crime. In their seminal study of nearly 10,000 boys in Philadelphia,

Wolfgang et al. (1972) revealed that the most active 6 percent of delinquent

boys were responsible for more than 50 percent of all delinquent acts

committed. The RAND Corporation’s survey of jail and prison inmates in

California, Michigan, and Texas revealed that, in all three states, the most

frequent 10 percent of active offenders committed some 50 percent of all

crimes and 80 percent of crimes were committed by only 20 percent of the

criminals (Chaiken and Chaiken, 1982). Moreover, 1 percent of offenders

committed crimes at the very high rate of more than 50 serious offenses per

year (Rolph et al., 1981).

The observation that a small number of highly active offenders generates

a large share of the crime problem is an important insight for law

enforcement agencies with limited resources to prevent crime. Many serious

urban crime problems, for example gang violence, are driven by groups of

these criminally active individuals. Focusing criminal justice attention on a

small number of high-risk offenders may be a promising way to control gun

violence.

St. Louis Youth Firearm Suppression Program

The Firearm Suppression Program (FSP) sought parental consent to

search for and seize the guns of juveniles (Rosenfeld and Decker, 1996).

While this program was not explicitly focused on dangerous offenders, it

represents a police program to prevent firearm-related violence by disarming

a very risky population of potential gun offenders—juveniles. The program

was operated by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s

Mobile Reserve Unit, which is a police squad dedicated to responding to

pockets of crime and violence throughout St. Louis (Rosenfeld and Decker,

1996). Home searches were initiated on the basis of resident requests for

police service, reports from other police units, and information gained from

other investigations. As Rosenfeld and Decker describe, “an innovative

feature of the program is its use of a ‘Consent to Search and Seize’ form to

secure legal access to the residence. Officers inform the adult resident that

the purpose of the program is to confiscate illegal firearms, particularly

those belonging to juveniles, without seeking criminal prosecution. The

resident is informed that she will not be charged with the illegal possession

of a firearm if she signs the consent form” (p. 204). While it was operating,

the program generated few complaints from the persons who were subjected

to the search, but it received criticism from local representatives of

the American Civil Liberties Union, who questioned the possibility of receiving

real consent to search when a person is standing face-to-face with

two police officers (Rosenfeld and Decker, 1996).

A key component of the program was to respond to problems identified

by residents, and the success of the program was reliant on effective policecommunity

relationships. By seeking and acquiring community input into

the process of identifying and confiscating guns from juveniles, the St. Louis

Metropolitan Police Department developed a model of policing gun violence

that put a premium on effective communication and trust with the

community not found in most problem-oriented policing projects. As

Rosenfeld and Decker (1996) observe, the Firearm Suppression Program

was also designed to send a clear message that juvenile firearms possession

will not be tolerated by the police or the community because it places

individuals at risk and threatens public safety. However, while this program

gained national attention for its innovative approach and seemed to

be a promising route to disarming juveniles,7 the Mobile Reserve Unit

underwent a series of changes that caused the program to be stopped and

restarted several times; the subsequent incarnations did not take the same

approach as the original program. A rigorous impact evaluation of the

original Firearm Suppression Program was not completed.